many today encounter in attempting to understand Marxism
follows from four basic factors:
1.) Marxism has been so often and so widely misunderstood, in large part due to the successful efforts at fundamentally misrepresenting it of many of its foremost enemies, as well as by many who have claimed to be its supporters and adherents, yet who, in actual practice, have consistently violated, even travestied, its tenets, methods, commitments, and objectives;
2.) Marxism depends, across the board, upon ways of thinking that run directly counter to the commonsense, and the dominant ideology, of bourgeois, or, in other words, capitalist, culture, so that Marxist conceptions do not coincide with bourgeois conceptions of terms both share in common, such as, for instance, "science," "economics," "materialism," and "ideology";
3.) Marxism is a complex, transdisciplinary, and multidimensional phenomenon that transcends conventional distinctions between theory and practice; and
4.) Marxism, properly understood and employed, aims to function as a living-that is as a dynamically developing and changing, critical, social science and practical philosophy-contrary to the way in which it certainly has at times been both perceived and used-as a rigid dogma.
Marxism is not necessarily the most difficult variety of modern critical theory, but it certainly can prove quite difficult, at least at first, because it attempts a systematic critique of capitalism in its entirety, including capitalist ways of thinking, and these ways of thinking dominate conventional commonsense in capitalist societies like our own. Marxism challenges what we often largely accept without question, what we take for granted as self-evident, what we don't even recognize or acknowledge as capable of being conceived, and approached, differently. Therefore, to understand Marxism you need critically to examine your assumptions about issues as fundamental as 'what exists', 'what is true', 'what is good', 'what is desirable', 'what is necessary', and 'what is possible'. Only by doing so can you really begin to grasp Marxism on its own terms. In short, to grasp Marxism on its own terms you have to be ready and willing to think in ways that break decisively with familiar norms and forms, i.e., "to think outside the box."
At the same time, Marxism can also prove difficult on a first encounter because many approaching Marxism at this level tend to believe they maintain some understanding already of what Marxism means and is all about, yet usually find once they start to read and study it that they actually do not know virtually anything at all about Marxism. Bourgeois ideology finds it extremely useful substantially to misrepresent-to distort-Marxism, and therefore a reader who actually wants to learn about Marxism (not just accept reductive, trivializing, and absurd caricatures of Marxism) will find a striking disparity between, on the one hand, what bourgeois intellectual, political, and media sources tend to identify with Marxism and, on the other hand, what the reader finds Marxists emphasize and advocate themselves as Marxism.
Still, however, UWEC students always manage to come away from classes like ours with a solid introductory grasp of the main tenets of Marxism, even on a short acquaintance, so I wouldn't worry too much about any initial confusion or uncertainty. And, remember, we will spend three weeks on Marxism to make sure we have the time to come to this point of rudimentary understanding.
Nevertheless, this is yet another challenging phase of our work together this semester, and perhaps even more so than what we have yet encountered, as with Marxism we will be engaging with positions deliberately conceived in opposition to dominant ways of thinking and understanding (and to do so in likely less familiar and readily acceptable-i.e., Christian existentialist-ways than Kierkegaard does). Marxist ideas cannot be simply and easily converted into just another way of saying what is already widely familiar and well-entrenched. In fact, it is for this reason-its opposition to, and critique of, the widely familiar and well-entrenched-that to this day many commentators identify Marxism as the inauguration and foundation of critical theory. As Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, authors of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, explain it in their famous essay on "Critical Theory and Traditional Theory," critical theory deliberately opposes traditional theory by working to expose, press beyond, and supersede the problems and limits of traditional theory. What's more, as Marx repeatedly indicates he does with Hegel, critical theory aims 'to stand traditional theory on its head'. The theories most of us work with and adhere to, throughout most of our everyday lives, tend to be, in this sense, overwhelmingly 'traditional', so it can certainly be a shock to the system to encounter critical theory in a serious, sustained way for the first time.
As we proceed in our subsequent discussions of Marxism, I welcome you all to ask me questions, and I will certainly be glad to do whatever I can to help you answer these, but at times I may need temporarily to push aside some questions that are more tangentially or idiosyncratically related to the main focus of (and a more straightforwardly logical pathway through) our collective discussions, especially those questions which represent narrowly individual concerns. These latter I can address outside of class where you and I can talk about them, as you wish. I'm always glad to do this. I myself have worked as a Marxist for over twenty years now, and in fact on a considerable number of occasions taught courses in Marxism, and in various aspects of Marxism, including as part of 'free universities' organized for the general public and the broader community beyond those paying to attend and seek a degree from a university. I've also been an active member of a considerable number of Marxist socialist, as well as more broadly inclusively socialist, organizations ever since I was in high school, many of which I have myself organized and led. These organizations have conducted work in education, study, and research, on the one hand, as well as critique, protest, agitation, advocacy, solidarity, and political and ideological struggle, on the other hand. So I can speak, including answer your questions, from that perspective, as one who has developed and maintained that kind of intimate relationship with Marxism.
I want to turn next though to offer just a few opening words in response to the question "what is Marxism?" I distrust sloganeering soundbite responses to this kind of question, and will not cater to the erroneous belief that Marxism can be adequately summed up in something like twenty-five words or less. Still, I believe this is a useful and even obvious question to ask. But to answer this question in a way that stands true to the spirit of Marxism means I must refuse to offer an initial simple, direct answer to it, for a number of very good reasons.
First, Marxism does not conceive of its objects of investigation and explanation as either fixed or static essences, as what we like to think about as 'things', but rather as relations and processes, always in motion, and always existing within determinant complexes of interconnections. Therefore, Marxism does not conceive of Marxism as a mere "thing."
Second, Marxism is an extremely far-reaching and ambitious project that does not easily compare with virtually anything else. For instance, Marxism, in a very broad sense, aims to contribute toward the theorization of the fundamental determinate principles directing and sustaining natural reality and existence, while in a narrower yet still enormously ambitious sense it aims to contribute similarly toward the theorization of human history and society. Beyond this, in an even narrower and more precise yet also quite bold endeavor, Marxism aims to contribute toward the theorization of capitalism (including capitalist economics, politics, society, and culture), from the vantage point of the interest of the exploited and oppressed in securing emancipation through the socialist, and ultimately communist, transformation and supersession of capitalism.
And this is still, in all three cases, too one-sided an answer to the question of 'what is Marxism', as Marxism argues for the necessary unity of theory and practice, for the 'materialization' as well as the verification of theory in practice, and for the reconception of theory as practice. So, in more familiar terms that tend to dichotomize theory and practice (i.e., where we commonsensically say something like 'it looks good in theory, but I'm not sure what it will turn out to be like in practice') , it is necessary to define Marxism as always theory AND practice. From Marx onward, Marxists never conceive of or approach Marxism as a purely intellectual field of activity (to quote Marx and Engels from their Theses on Feuerbach, "the philosophers heretofore have only interpreted the world; the point however is to change it"). In short, rather than beginning with a simple definition of Marxism, we need to inquire into Marxism to work our way through it before we can arrive at even the semblance of such a definition. Otherwise, a definition blocks understanding by preventing inquiry, by stopping the movement from empirically concrete through layers of abstraction followed by layers of concretization toward arrival at the theoretically concrete: the concrete that we can explain rather than simply describe, that we can account for not merely identify, and that we can truly see yet not merely visually perceive.
Pursuing this work I believe can prove of considerable value; after all, as aforementioned, all subsequent developments in critical theory all draw upon and react back upon Marxism. Marxism has supplied the initial impetus and provided the initial basis for virtually all forms of modern and postmodern critical theory, even in anti- and post- Marxist forms. It will, as such, be quite useful to take the time carefully to try to come to terms with rudiments of Marxist thought.
Let's begin with some major tenets of Marxist Philosophy in general.
First, all reality exists in a constant state of change; reality is not a sum of facts but a combination of processes; reality is a whole in motion, with everything ultimately interconnected; change happens as a result of the movement of internal contradictions within this whole.
To illustrate this conception, take, for example, the character of an individual human being, a student who we'll call 'Tom'. According to Marxism, it can make perfect sense to say that Tom "is all of the following:
And, of course, we could go on and on with this list. The point is that Tom is in some ways the one side and in other ways the opposite side of each of these pairs; he is closer to one side in some situations, circumstances, or contexts, while he is closer to the opposite side in others; he is at one point in time in his life closer to the one side and at other points in his life closer to the other side (i.e., he changes); and he experiences each of these oppositions as internal tensions, as forces impelling him in opposing directions, as conflicting tendencies for who he will be and what he will do, as contradictions which he will have to work on, and through -i.e., resolve-as he proceeds forward. Yet even as Tom resolves these contradictions, he will then encounter new ones. This is inevitable as long as Tom lives in a world with other people, interacts with them, and is affected by the influence and impact of these others upon who he is and what he does. Tom, for instance, may find going to college leads him to resolve a number of contradictions he experienced as a high school student while also creating new sets of contradictions, such as contradictions between pre-collegiate interests and outlooks and post-collegiate ones.
Second, knowledge arises from the quest to understand reality through an active process of interaction between the pursuer of knowledge and the object of this pursuer's quest for knowledge. Engagement with the object of knowledge changes the subject who is pursuing this knowledge, while the subject also changes the object in her or his quest to understand it, because understanding requires active engagement with what one seeks to know. Knowledge seeks to provide an understanding and explanation of the logic of development of natural and social processes that maintain significant weight and exert significant impact.
To illustrate what I mean here, let me put it this way: knowledge of the world develops out of engagement within it, not retreat from it; knowledge is not disinterested and unbiased, rather it is interested and biased. The only truly disinterested and unbiased position versus any object of knowledge is one that is totally unaffected by and unrelated to this object, which is in other words ignorant of and indifferent to the object. Marxism contends that this kind of ignorance and indifference prevents knowing the object, let alone understanding it, and therefore offers the least valuable perspective on the object of any available. To make this even more concrete, let's put it this way: the way to know racism, sexism, and heterosexism is to engage with these phenomena, directly, in the concrete, to seek to effect an impact upon these practices; it is through doing so-through this work and this struggle-that we in turn come to grasp what racism, sexism, and heterosexism are like, and are about.
Third, material reality exists independent of our thoughts about it: it therefore maintains an objective existence, and is not merely a subjective projection. Thought can always only reach an approximate understanding of material reality, because material reality is itself constantly changing and because our human capacity to understand it is always inevitably limited.
For example, last semester a student in my 285 class contended that if people would just stop talking about oppression it would go away, it would no longer exist, and that, in fact, talking about oppression in fact produces oppression. According to this way of thinking, the oppressed bring oppression onto themselves by talking about being oppressed; if they did not talk about themselves as oppressed, they would not be oppressed. According to Marxism this is an entirely backwards way of grasping the issue. It is akin to claiming that if I believe and say that I need not obey any laws, rules, directives, or commands, that I will not have to do so; that if I declare that I can work whenever and however I want, that I will be able to do so; that if I declare that I don't need money to obtain goods from stores, that I will not need it; and that if I think, believe, and say that I can race down a slippery highway in the middle of blizzard conditions at ninety miles an hour without risking an accident, that I will be able to do exactly this. In short, according to Marxism, people talk about oppression because people experience oppression, the talk does not generate oppression but results from it. Of course, some may misrepresent a situation that is in fact not an oppressive one as if it were, but, according to Marxism, they do so because they are seeking to gain something, to advance something, through appropriation of this term, which they recognize does, elsewhere and otherwise, exercise real power, and correspond to actual life-circumstances with a real weight. They wouldn't be tempted to misrepresent their situation as oppressive if oppression were merely a word that had no referent other than other words themselves.
Take another example. Years ago I attended a conference where a keynote speaker make, to my mind, the absurd claim that we shouldn't be all so worked up about capitalism because capitalism is just a word, and if we want to get rid of it, we can easily do so. As she described it, each morning she destroyed capitalism in her bathtub and then created socialism right afterward. If we all did this, capitalism would end, and we would have socialism. Of course, from a Marxist vantage point we could then go on to call the capitalist economic and social system that we continued to operate within as socialist but this would not make it so.
Just to follow up on this further. You might say that no one anywhere suffers from racial or sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse, but, from a Marxist perspective, this proclamation does not by any means eliminate racism and sexism; it only means you willfully blind yourself to the world outside your head-including your illusions and your prejudices.
Fourth, the test of the 'truth' of an idea is always ultimately what it can explain and enable in practice.
Take the following example: a politician and his or her advisers develop a program which they claim takes care of a specific problem, and they manage to pass this into law. From a Marxist vantage point, the test of whether or not this program, and this law, does what its supporters contend it does always happens in actual practice. It is relatively easy, for instance, to say that one has an explanation for what causes terrorism, but the test of whether or not this explanation is true follows only by directly applying and bringing it to bear in actual practice to see if this idea can adequately explain actual, specific, concrete instances of terrorism, as well as what unites them all as instances of a common phenomenon.
Likewise, someone might say to you that they know how to make you rich, or thin, or fit, or attractive, or happy, but the test of whether or not this is true is if it can indeed work in practice. Substance trumps image from a Marxist vantage point even as image can mislead people to falsely imagine substance doesn't matter or that it is identical with, that it naturally follows, from image. Marxism argues you should always ultimately judge people by what they do over what they say.
Fifth, history is made by real, concrete human beings, not by humanity in general or by the spirit of humanity (or by a few great men): real differences among human beings (in different kinds of social positions) must be taken into account in adequately understanding and explaining human history.
In other words, we
all together participate in making history, and history is
the result of the intersection of all our actions and practices,
through what we
actually do in the world, not simply the result of what a few
bring about all by themselves and not merely the expression of some
kind of 'idea
or spirit of the Age'. Marxism calls for a people's history of the
world, and for a
history that emphasizes the determinate effects of concrete human
So, for instance, Marxism argues Enlightenment ideas did not in and of themselves dictate the course of human history in the so-called 'Age of Enlightenment', nor did great thinkers or great leaders do so, nor did some abstract idea called 'Enlightenment' do this, but instead masses of people living and working in Europe and North America at the time made this history what it was.
Sixth, true human emancipation requires the satisfaction of basic human needs, for all.
According to Marx and Engels, communism is a prospective form of human social organization in which "the freedom for one will be the condition for the freedom of all." What this means in relation to existing society is that none are truly free while others are so oppressed that they cannot survive and subsist, as even those who oppress, or who indirectly gain by way of this oppression of others, are alienated too-they are alienated from the opportunity to share, work, grow, develop, and prosper together with the oppressed. The oppressors and those who gain indirectly by way of oppression also must always be prepared to defend what they have acquired and accumulated, to protect and secure it from the oppressed who will eventually seek to take it because the advantage the former maintains comes at the expense of the latter. This state of affairs leads to fear, distrust, separation, division, distance, and antagonism becoming effectively pervasive dimensions of economic, political, social, and cultural relations.
According to Marxism, in class societies we tend to define freedom in negative terms, as freedom from and freedom versus, rather than in positive terms, as freedom with and freedom for. Why, Marxism proposes, not imagine freedom as the freedom to do many things together with fellow human beings that one could not possibly do by one's self alone? Why define freedom as getting altogether away from other people-and their influence? We ourselves are made up of our relations with others-past, present, and prospective future; all of whom and what we are as social beings we develop and actualize by way of our relations with other people.
Now let's turn to some major tenets of Marxist theory of history and society.
First, social classes are not permanent and eternal, but correspond to a historically specific stage of human history. Humans produce means of survival deliberately, collectively, including a social product that divides between a necessary social product and a surplus social product. The necessary social product, working from the vantage point of the laborer, refers to the equivalent in value necessary to provide for the survival and subsistence of this very same laborer; under capitalism the necessary surplus product refers to the value equivalent of his or her wage. The surplus social product refers to the equivalent in value of everything else that is produced beyond what is required to compensate the laborer for his or her labor sufficiently so that she or he will be able to continue to labor, so that he or she will survive and subsist.
In class societies, laborers typically produce a surplus product that is at least twice as much as the necessary product they produce and often far greater in proportion; according to frequent estimates, on average, in capitalist production today, wage-laborers in advanced capitalist economies typically produce the necessary social product in 1/4 of the time they work, whereas they produce social surplus product in the remaining 3/4 time. As you might well imagine, in some third world and sweatshop economies the disproportion is yet far greater than this. In class societies, the class that owns the means of social production, and controls the processes of social production, typically appropriates the social surplus product for itself; under capitalism, this is the capitalist class.
As long as this surplus social product is significant in size yet insufficient to free the vast mass of humanity from the necessity of expending considerable time and effort to produce its means of survival and subsistence, classes will be inevitable, with a ruling class appropriating the social surplus product. Yet when the necessary social product can be produced through a considerably smaller effort (requiring very limited time and energy) the material basis for a classless society is at hand. The size of the social product, including of the surplus social product, is determined by social productivity of labor, itself in turn chiefly dependent upon the level of development of the social productive forces. The social function of accumulation by a small minority is therefore not entirely exploitative and predatory because this does allow for the cultivation and preservation of knowledge that enables social advancement and progress. The real problem is the unproductive and wasteful appropriation of the social surplus product by this small minority class to support their private material privilege versus that of the rest of society.
To illustrate this last point further, according to Marxism the major historical forms of class society include slave society, tributary society, feudal society, and capitalist society-but before slave society, as well as simultaneous with all of these kinds of class society, some human social communities existed in states of 'primitive communism'. Classes, in Marxist terms, refer to distinct social layers defined in terms of their relative position versus the ownership and control of the means, processes, and ends of social production, including one's own and others' productive as well as reproductive activity. For instance, to put it simply, under capitalism, workers own nothing of value sufficient to support themselves other than their own labor-power, whereas capitalists maintain considerable wealth beyond this, and in particular, own the means of social production which the workers need to engage in order to put their labor-power to use. Workers then sell their labor-power to capitalists in order for this to transpire. Ruling classes, by definition, do not need to work, even if they often do so, in order to support and sustain themselves, as they use their ownership and control of the means, processes, and ends of others' work to support and sustain themselves. It is this latter ownership and control that enables them not only to support themselves but also to maintain dominance.
As long as a specific minority sliver of the total population does appropriate the social surplus product for themselves, to serve their own private interests, then we will have class divisions. But when the social surplus product is owned by all those who produce it, and, beyond this, by all the members of society, then we supersede division of society into classes. Other social divisions will persist and new ones will develop, but the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a minority at the expense of-and, more specifically, through the exploitation of the labor of-the vast majority will cease. According to Marxism, capitalism develops the productive forces of society to the point where, ultimately, the objective need for the maintenance and preservation of classes no longer prevails-in short, the total global social surplus product eventually, under capitalism, can readily provide quite amply for the survival and subsistence of all members of the human species, while the need no longer persists for a small group to appropriate this social surplus product to themselves in order to set themselves up apart from the rest so as to manage and direct the processes of social production. Instead, it now becomes possible to separate ownership and control from management and direction such that managers and directors become specific kinds of workers along with everyone else, and no longer capitalists. In fact, overcoming the division between management and labor, by redefining management as a part of the process of labor and managers as fellow participants within a united collective of laborers, simultaneously overcomes the antagonism between management and labor, by equating the respective interests and ultimate powers of managers and other laborers in the labor processes they both work on, together.
Second, in the course of producing their own material life and organizing social relations with each other to express and sustain it, humans enter into definite relations of production, and these in turn determine the shape of the economic basis of human society (and this economic sphere includes, strictly speaking, not only production, but also distribution, exchange, circulation, accumulation, and consumption).
In order properly to understand this Marxist position it is necessary to recognize that for Marxism the economic refers to the entire social sphere of production, distribution, exchange, circulation, and consumption of all goods and services necessary for human survival and subsistence and for the satisfaction of all human needs and the fulfillment of all human desires. This includes the totality of all relations among human beings-and all of the materials, instruments, and supplies- necessary to carry out these social processes, as well as all of the ways-or modes-of organizing and conducting relations within these processes. Therefore, Marxism conceives of the economic sphere of social life, as well as of economics, the study of what transpires within this sphere, in much broader and more inclusive terms than is commonsensically, conventionally the case.
When Marxism argues the economic is ultimately determinant, in the last or final instance, this simply means that without taking care of what is necessary to provide for survival, subsistence, and reproduction nothing else that human beings do is possible. More than this, the way that we work together to take care of these needs-and to provide for the satisfaction of subsequent needs and desires-conditions what else we are able to do as well as how we will pursue it. The economy functions as the terrain upon which we carry out our life-practices; according to the nature of the terrain we will pursue these life-practices in different ways, just as we would operate differently in desert, tundra, grasslands, forest, marshlands, etc.
Let's take up another analogy, one that Marx himself famously employs: the economic sphere, as Marxism conceives it, functions akin to the foundation, including the basement, of a house or other building, whereas the other spheres of social life functions akin to the subsequent floors of the house or other building. We spend the vast majority of our time living our lives in these subsequent floors, and relatively little time in the basement, right atop the foundation (especially, that is, if we are describing an unfurnished basement, which is in fact what Marx had in mind). Yet without the foundation the above floors could not stand up and we would not be able to live upon-and within-them. The economic sphere therefore serves, analogously, as the foundation for the rest of the life of a society.
I want next briefly to give an example of how the mode of organization and conduct of economic life conditions social life beyond the conduct of strictly economic kinds of social relations. Capitalism represents a economic system of generalized commodity relations. A commodity is a use-value that cannot be made use of until it is sold and bought at a market, such that its exchange value controls, and even dominates over, its use-value. When we talk about the commodification of personal relations under capitalism we mean the influence of this commodity logic upon the way that we relate to each other such that we tend to treat the people we interact with, and with whom we develop connections, as not only means rather than as ends in themselves but also as objects, not subjects, who provide us with value that we use to trade or purchase what we need and desire. As a result we live alienated from each other. And it is worth noting here that another major Marxist contribution to social theory is the concept of alienation: Marx critiqued capitalist society for its deep-seated tendency to result in alienation of laborers from the product of their labor, from the process of their labor, from their fellow laborers, and from their 'species-being' as people whose own human essence is in fact shaped and formed as a result of our interdeterminant relations with other human beings, past and present.
To push this commodity example a little further, we can here usefully talk as well about the "fetishism of commodities," another famous Marxist idea, where the logic of generalized commodity relations leads us to view our relation to goods and services as a relation purely to things rather than as a relation to people, not recognizing that each good and service we purchase represents a particular quantity of congealed human labor, that a series of particular human beings, working under particular conditions and in particular kinds of relations, have contributed to make these products and services available to us. As a result of this fetishism of commodities we don't think about, or look into, the human dimension of the production of these goods and services, becoming easily callously indifferent to those others who have made these products available for us-people with whom we are in fact intrinsically related by way of our purchase and use of these very same goods and services.
Third, stable relations of production that reproduce themselves more or less automatically constitute distinct modes of social production. Multiple modes of social production exist simultaneously at any historical time and in any historical place: these include dominant, residual, emergent, transitional, and other varieties.
To illustrate this idea, briefly, let me just point out that today, although the capitalist mode of production is overwhelmingly dominant across the globe, we still find many residual instances of slave and feudal modes of production, including, for instance, in some traditional patriarchal family, de facto slave labor, and sweatshop economies, as well as of collectivist, non-commodity production-in places as diverse as what family members and friends do for each other when they make meals or clean up after and help take care of each other-as well as in social institutions such libraries and social enterprises such as cooperatives.
Making love represents another area in which many people work, and share, together to produce something without this first passing through the mediation of a market transaction, although of course some people do literally, directly buy and sell sex, while yet others do so figuratively, indirectly by only offering or giving another sex in exchange for something else of equivalent or greater value. But, as you can see, from that last example, commodity exchange also involves a peculiar kind of alienation at the direct point of contact between 'buyer' and 'seller', as each regards the object being exchanged in often fundamentally different, even diametrically opposed ways-for the one it represents a direct source of satisfaction and fulfillment, whereas for the other it is something that needs to be got rid of in order to obtain the means to acquire satisfaction and fulfillment.
Fourth, a dominant mode of social production is progressive insofar as its gives a major impetus to the development of the social productive forces, notably by helping to save labor, and to reduce the physical effort required for human survival and subsistence, even if this reduction tends, in class societies, primarily to serve the interests of the most privileged. A dominant mode of production is regressive when existing relations of production become fetters on the further progressive development of the productive forces, such that more is wasted or destroyed or otherwise mishandled or abused as a result of the ways in which these relations of social production are organized than what is created, saved, enabled, accumulated, etc.
To begin I want to indicate that a mode of production equals a particular way of articulating forces of production with relations of production.
Forces of production include means of production plus labor-power. Means of production include such things as plant, equipment, tools, machinery, raw materials and supplies, and the overall organizational structure of the process of production. Labor-power includes not just the sheer ability to labor, but also the skills, training, knowledges, and competencies laborers acquire and require in order to perform particular kind of tasks. Forces of production, interesting enough, might well also be thought of as including all relations IN production: all relations among all inputs in the very process of production itself.
Relations of production refer to relations FOR and FROM production; i.e., relations PRIOR TO and FOLLOWING UPON the actual, direct process of production. The major kind of relations of production involve ownership and control. In other words, the term relations of production covers two things of key importance. First, it covers who owns what inputs in the production process, to what extent, and who controls what inputs in the production process, in what ways, entering into the process of production itself. Second relations of production covers who own what outputs from the production process, to what extent, and who controls what outputs from the production process, in what ways.
Under capitalism, the forces of production, including the relations IN production, tend to become highly socialized, to involve considerable collaboration and cooperation among many workers, including workers separated over time and space. So even if the process is an often alienative one for most workers, it does require these workers to work together, to work in relations with each other, in order to produce what they do.
At the same time, however, under capitalism, the relations of production tend to become increasingly privatized, meaning, in particular, that fewer and fewer people tend to maintain ownership of and control over more and more of the inputs into and the outputs from the social process of production.
In relation to the question of measuring the progressive versus regressive character of a mode of production I only want to add, as further illustration of this Marxist point, that often those unfamiliar with Marxism miss one of Marx's major contentions about capitalism. Simply put, capitalism, according to Marx, represents the best mode of human social production and the best form of human social organization that human beings have yet developed, and its in fact revolutionary contributions have been tremendous, as well as, in many respects, tremendously positive. However, capitalism remains a form of class society, remains founded on exploitation, and runs into fundamental contradictions that it cannot ultimately overcome. Capitalism, in short, is not the end of history, the very best that human beings will ever be able to do; after all, even today, over 150 years after Marx first began his work, capitalism has only been a dominant mode of social production for a little over 200 years, while previous dominant modes of social production remained in place for much longer periods of time-and the period of transition between dominant modes has usually taken centuries as well. Marx and Engels contended that the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were progressive in relation to what they displaced and overcame. Yet once capitalism became firmly established as the dominant mode of social production and form of social organization, it becomes clear that capitalism suffers from its own inherent problems and limitations.
As aforementioned, under capitalism the ever-increasing socialization of the forces and processes of production conflicts with the ever-increasing privatization of the relations of ownership and control of production. According to Marxism, a whole host of related and constituent contradictions follow from and interconnect this one, such as contradictions between exchange value and use value, planning in the process of production versus anarchy in the marketplace, and what's good for the individual capitalist firm or industry versus what is necessary to reproduce the general conditions of social production in a prosperous way for the class as a whole and for all of society.
To take up the very last point, we are currently rapidly running out of oil and natural gas in the world today, such that many recent, credible estimates suggest we have either already reached and passed, or will soon reach and pass, the peak point of maximum potential simultaneous worldwide extraction and production. Obviously, therefore, it is in the economic interest of everyone, across the world, assiduously to do all that it takes, and to invest all necessary means to rapidly and effectively develop and disseminate alternative energy resources. However, it is not in the individual, immediate, short-term best interest of the most powerful capitalist corporations, including capitalist energy corporations, or their allied states, today to do so; as long as these companies can make a substantial profit, including at others' expense, and including while worldwide prices of oil and natural gas steadily rise due to ensuing declines and shortages, these companies, and these states, have little incentive to do anything differently.
Here it is worth keeping in mind that during capitalist economic recessions and depressions, some capitalist companies, especially some of the most powerful and profitable such companies, always actually do better, in large part because so many other, especially smaller, companies are suffering and failing, leaving greater room for the few to swallow up what is left.
Fifth, no automatic link exists between particular levels of development of the social productive forces on the one hand and particular forms of relations of social production on the other hand. The link is always mediated by the course of real class struggle.
Let turn now to what this means. To begin, it is true that Marx, Engels, and Lenin clearly, as you have read, always maintained considerable optimism about the prospect of socialist revolution and transformation coming sooner rather than later, and did so in fact often for strategic reasons-i.e., to inspire people to believe and work for this end. Yet, fact, according to Marxism, social revolution always depends upon a precise unification of objective conditions and subjective forces, such that the conditions necessary for a revolution potentially to succeed, might well be objectively in place, yet if sufficient forces are not organized, trained, educated, mobilized, and deployed successfully to take advantage of this objective opportunity then revolution will not happen, or it will fail.
Failure does not just mean that a revolutionary attempt never gets started, or is defeated right away. Failure can also happen in the way that it did, for instance, in the Soviet Union, by being contained, becoming coopted, and eventually usurped and replaced by a counter-revolutionary bureaucratic authoritarian regime that ran the nation in direct opposition to socialist, and especially communist, principles while continuing to falsely identify itself with socialism and communism.
Marxism argues that capitalism cannot survive forever, because that is contrary to fundamental laws of nature as well as the logic of capitalist development itself, and therefore its own internal contradictions eventually will reach the point of such crisis that they cannot be resolved while maintaining capitalism as capitalism. Yet at the same time Marxism also argues that socialism does not by any means necessarily follow as capitalism's successor. Marxism famously proposes that beyond capitalism we will most likely move in the direction of either socialism or barbarism: a post-capitalistic form of global totalitarianism where former capitalist interests morph into a unified ruling body that no longer divides and competes against itself and no longer subjects its power first and last to the mediation of the market. What happens in the eventual movement beyond capitalism will depend upon the relative strength of contending social forces at the point where capitalism can no longer continue-as capitalism.
Sixth, men and women make history but not in conditions of their own making or choosing, with history and historical change thereby always the result of intersection of subjective and objective factors.
The point here is relatively simple. To begin, we can and do make a difference, we do participate in history, all the time, in everything we do, whether we recognize it or not, and in fact all of us through the social work we do-including at this institution-in turn do contribute to the reproduction and maintenance of existing social arrangements. In short, if we all stopped working, capitalism could not continue: capitalism is maintained and reproduced every day, by us taking up our places and performing our functions, within the capitalist economy.
The other side of Marxism's point here is this, however: we ourselves did not make or choose capitalism when we were born into it, and although we can work to maintain, reproduce, reform, or transform it, we always have to start with what is in place, including what is shaping and has shaped us to be who we are, when we go forth to attempt to make a difference in history. Not only this, of course, but our individual wills all contribute to the historical mix, with the result being more and different than any one person alone wills. This is why working together with others increases our chances of making an impact, and in fact one reason why Marx argued that socialism cannot be achieved other than as a mass movement of self-emancipation by the working class itself. Following upon this last point, Marxists always distinguish sharply between revolution and coup d'etat; the workers must organize, mobilize, and act to free themselves in order to transform society in a revolutionary direction, not merely fall in line with and afterward follow a clique that has managed on its own to usurp power.
Seventh, class struggle continues everywhere throughout class society at all times, regardless of the degree of consciousness of this struggle. In fact, ideology works either to direct or distort class consciousness, with the ruling class always enjoying a considerable advantage versus all other classes in the production and dissemination of ideology.
We all exist as part of social classes, all the time, even if most of the time we don't think about this. In modern capitalist society, we tend to think of ourselves as always, first and last, discrete, autonomous, sovereign, and transcendent individuals. In short we follow Rene Descartes in accepting this notion of 'the individual self' as both the source of all that can be known with any certainty as well as all the agent of that we do come to know. Others exist ultimately distinct and separate from us, and the form and content of our consciousness are all first and last entirely our own. Marxism opposes this Cartesian conception of the self, along with the corollary position, that our fundamental interests are always ultimately uniquely individual as well, because Marxism regards these ideas as products of dominant capitalist ideology. This way of thinking aligns all of us who are not capitalists with capitalist values and modes of conduct, such that we act as if we are mini-capitalists each in our own right and thereby conceive our interests and those of actual capitalists to be virtually identical. Not only this, but also accepting and identifying with this way of thinking about "ourselves" works to divide and separate us so we pose little threat to capitalist hegemony, and so that whatever resistance we do individually offer to capitalist exploitation, oppression, and alienation can be easily conquered.
The ruling class own the principal sources for the production and dissemination of ideas, and ruling class values pervade these sources, perhaps today more than ever, with the power of the global mass media that is dominated by a small handful of huge multinational conglomerates.
At the same time, though, many workers who do not consciously or deliberately organize in opposition to their exploitation are well aware that they are exploited, and through various 'everyday forms of resistance', such as taking more time for themselves than directed, taking home goods from the workplace, ignoring or otherwise defying specific orders or mandated procedures, etc. they engage in class struggle.
Also, when we work a job where we attempt to do right by the customer and give him or her what he truly wants and needs, at the same time that our company is telling us not to be so honest, or so helpful, we may well also be engaging in resistance toward identification with capitalist values (that what ultimately matters most is always, first and last, the bottom line). We are here, when we exhibit such pride in our work, and we want to give it our very best, no matter how cost-effective this may or may not turn out to be, attempting to take back our labor from the control of the companies we work for, and to reassert our power over how we exercise this labor, for what, and in accord with what standards.
Eighth, the state is neither neutral nor eternal. The state ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class in a class society, and does by so means of a combination of coercive and integrative measures.
From a Marxist vantage point, the ultimate goal of socialist revolution is to eliminate the need for any kind of state, and, under communism, the state will have withered away. You can therefore see here how statist societies like Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, as well as statist misconceptions of Marxism, fly in the face of what Marxism has, from Marx onward, defined socialism and communism to be, in essence, all about.
The state, in class society, Marxism contends, helps do the dirty work that the ruling class can't easily do directly all by itself without risking substantial opposition, and the state serves the common interests of the ruling class as a whole, allowing the individual members of the ruling class to concentrate on pursuing their own individual interests, including in competition with each other. The state also serves as the site at which the ruling class negotiates compromises with organized representatives of other classes that grant partial and temporary concessions to these others in order to insure that the capitalist class will remain in power and to prevent grievances from becoming the inspiration for revolutionary movements.
After all, think about it this way: the principal job of the capitalist state is to preserve law and order so that business as usual can continue. Business as usual is business that produces optimal profit for the capitalist class.
The working class can organize and mobilize to put pressure on the capitalist state, especially from the ground up, through the grassroots, and from the outside, but the need to do so will constantly continue until the working class has seized the state, transformed, and begun to dismantle it. From a Marxist vantage point, for example, both the Republican and Democratic parties, are bourgeois parties that serve primarily bourgeois interests; their differences correspond to different wings of the bourgeois class, as well as different interests and outlooks on how to maintain and preserve bourgeois hegemony. To add to this, many historians and social scientists, of all political persuasions, have analyzed the Rooseveltian New Deal in the United States as a state initiative to save capitalism from the prospect of socialist revolution at a time of severe crisis; in order to preserve capitalism considerable concessions needed to be made to workers, yet in a way that insured that capitalists and the capitalist economy would remain dominant.
Ninth, the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a prospective transitional phase between the proletarian seizure of state power and reappropriation of economic control from the capitalist (at the initial stage of a socialist revolution) to the point where the conditions for the reemergence of capitalism have been eradicated and a state is no longer needed. The dictatorship of the proletariat thereby represents a transitional 'post-state' form serving the interest of the vast majority in maintaining and extending its real ownership and control over social resources, to the point at which there is no longer any viable possibility of turning back and thereby no longer any need for a state.
Versus anarchists who contend the state can be destroyed and eliminated all at once, Marxism contends that the state will just come back, all the stronger, if this pathway is followed: society must be transformed such that the need for a state no longer exists. The post-revolutionary state, however, must be one controlled by the organized working class, and its authority, and power, must be steadily reduced, transferred, and decentralized. In this transitional period, collectives of workers and citizens will steadily take over the management, direction, regulation, and control of steadily more and more areas of their own lives at the same time as they work to get rid of the organs of the state that stand in the way of this achievement, starting with those least accessible-and accountable-to genuine democratic oversight and supervision.
Next, I will turn to some further elaboration on some major tenets of Marxist Political Economy.
First, Marxism argues that labor is the essence of value: more precisely, labor as a measure of value equals a fraction of the labor potential (total mass of workdays or work hours) available at a given society at a given period of time. Social labor in general (abstracted from the particular trade or skill pursued by an individual worker in her or his concrete exercise of labor) is the basis for life and survival of all kinds of societies. In capitalist society, social labor is fragmented and broken up into the myriad private labors of myriad individuals and myriad individual units of production operating (largely) separately from each other. Tasks are not distributed to each of these sites of goods production (and service provision) deliberately, according to a comprehensive plan, but rather (largely) spontaneously and randomly.
As a result, capitalism suffers from the inherent tendency toward crisis, and in fact, has continuously cycled in and out of crisis ever since its initial emergence as a dominant mode of social production. Under modern capitalism the state has greatly expanded its scope and power to intervene in the economy to help manage and contain the extent of these regular crises, yet it cannot prevent them from happening. What is particularly interesting about capitalist economic crises is that these, classically, are crises of overproduction: i.e., crises where capitalism has produced more than can be sold and bought at a satisfactory rate of profit. So, even with millions upon millions of poor people suffering throughout the world, capitalism repeatedly has to contract and cut back in these times of critical overproduction, because capitalist production, by definition, is production designed to achieve a profit, and once profit sinks below a satisfactory average, or no longer can be obtained at all, production cannot continue.
Here we also see another one of the major problems of the capitalist economy: capitalists control the investment of the total mass of social wealth in an economy-they decide what to make and what to provide with this wealth-and they will, in order to act in their best interests as capitalists, invest in whatever, first and last, can bring them a profit, not what it ultimately essential to satisfy human needs. That is why we see so much overproduction of so many different varieties of essentially identical consumer items, that are in fact often not truly necessary at all, as well as why we see all the money that is spent on advertising and marketing to try to get people to buy these products. What's more, as long as it brings a satisfactory rate of profit, it doesn't even matter if these products are dangerous or unhealthy to people: huge profits are and long have been made from the production of goods that damage and harm people, and, in fact, are well-known to do little other than this. And, of course, capitalist advertisers and marketers here work assiduously to convince us that we need these dangerous and unhealthy products, and that they offer adequately compensating virtues for whatever harm they cause.
Second, under capitalism, the market is what subsequently recognizes (or doesn't recognize) private labor as genuinely social labor, and it is the market as well as that determines the relative degree of social worth associated with each and every instance of private labor. The value of a commodity (a commodity is a good or service that must be exchanged on a market, i.e., sold and bought, before it can be used by its ultimate consumer) = the quantity of socially necessary abstract labor needed to produce this commodity. "Socially necessary" here equates with the average level of productivity in the given industry where the good is produced or the service is provided. "Socially necessary" also refers to what the market recognizes as necessary or not necessary, and to what relative extent or degree it does so: i.e., the market determines which results of individual labor will obtain a buyer and which not, and at what relative prices versus each other. The market thereby determines what expenditures of labor-time and labor-energy are 'socially necessary' and what are 'socially wasteful' as well as which are more versus less necessary or wasteful.
So, under capitalism, your labor is more versus less socially necessary in accord with how much profit can be made from selling what you produce or provide. In short, those who complain that teachers, nurses, firefighters, etc. perform labor that is more valuable than that of sports stars; tv, film, and music entertainers; politicians and CEOs; etc., are measuring value according to non-capitalist, and in fact anti-capitalist, criteria. Socially necessary labor, under capitalism, according to a capitalist logic, is not the same as intrinsic quality. For example, when the manufacture of videotape first emerged as a substantial commercial industry, VHS did not dominate the market, and in fact, most technical experts judged Beta tape to be considerably superior in quality to VHS, yet VHS managed successfully to win the market war with Beta, such that those working to produce VHS tapes expended increasingly socially necessary labor while those working to produce Beta tapes expended decreasingly socially necessary labor.
Third, wage earners sell their labor-power, not their labor, to capital. Capital then makes use of their labor to produce an 'added value' which exceeds the value of the labor power capitalists paid for (i.e., which is greater than the worker's wage). This added value is called 'surplus value' and is the source of capitalist profit. Social surplus value=the sum total of the incomes of the owning classes, i.e., primarily, the capitalist class (profits + interest + rent), and this is what remains after the work force is paid and other maintenance costs are covered.
For example, you may work eight hours, yet produce the equivalent in value of your wages in the first four hours; the value you produce in the next four hours is added, or surplus, value, appropriated by capital, and subsequently turned into profit. If you didn't produce more in value than you are paid, then you aren't proving useful to capital. As mentioned earlier, however, most successful capitalist production today generates the equivalent in value of wages paid to workers in considerably less than 50% of the time its workers labor for these companies.
On the one hand the ratio of surplus value to necessary value should, seemingly, be easy to measure: you simply take the total value of goods and services produced by a company over a discrete period of time and subtract from this the cost of wages and wage-related expenses, i.e. benefits. However, measurement becomes more complicated for several reasons. First, not all companies themselves measure the value of production and the cost of labor over the same intervals of time.
Second, however, and more importantly, surplus value is the source of profit, but not equivalent with it. To begin, a company only realizes profit when it can transform all that it produces into money. Sometimes this is not possible; the value of the product on the market has declined during the interval between the beginning of the process of its production and the end of its process of production. Beyond this, capitalists compete with each other such that some companies actually manage to realize greater rates of profit than others, and, as a result, they in effect win some shares of others' profit or lose some shares of their own surplus profit in the course of this competition. At the same time, capitalists also willingly transfer portions of the surplus value they produce, and the monetary equivalent of this, to various agents who do work for them, such as banking and financial capitalists, agents and traders, wholesale and retail capitalists, and the state. Capitalists do so, of course, because the latter group actually helps make sure that they can actually transform surplus value into profit and that they can quickly and efficiently accumulate the capital necessary to reinvest and renew the process of production.
You might wonder about other costs capitalists bear in the process of production besides labor, and how these fit in. Here's how. Industrial capitalists pay the costs involved in acquiring and maintaining buildings, tools, and equipment, along with those involved in acquiring and using raw materials and supplies- as well as the costs of labor. Yet labor remains key here because labor is responsible for the entire value of the product, as follows: labor transfers a depreciated portion of the value of the plant, tools, and equipment to the product, labor transfers the value of the raw materials and supplies used to the product, and labor transfers an additional value beyond its own cost to the product: this additional value equals surplus value.
Still, however, the rate of profit IS NOT identical with the ratio of surplus value, even as surplus value IS the source of profit. The ratio of surplus value = the ratio of the value of surplus labor over the value of necessary labor. The rate of profit = the value of surplus labor over the value of necessary labor PLUS the value of the plant, tools, equipment, raw materials, and supplies used up in the process of production. So the ratio of surplus value might be 3 to 1, i.e., 300 %, yet the rate of profit might be 3 to 1 plus 4 or 40%.
Fourth, the cost of labor-power includes both a biological-physiological minimal component as well as a moral-historical maximal component, where the size and nature of the latter is affected by the relative balance of power between capital and labor in the course of class struggle, as well as by the size of the reserve army of labor (the unemployed and underemployed). The cost of education, skilling, and training, as well the money to cover the cost of various secondary and tertiary needs of workers and their families along with their consumer desires all become parts of the moral-historical component of the cost of labor-power.
Labor is the only input in production that adds greater value to the product than it costs because all of the rest of the inputs in production cannot be made to contribute more than they cost on the market, whereas the capitalist buys labor-power (the capacity to labor) yet makes use of labor (actual expenditure of labor) to generate value that exceeds the value of the labor-power purchased.
What then determines the cost of labor-power? To begin with the laborer must be paid a sufficient wage to be able to maintain herself or himself sufficiently such that she or he will be physically able to continue to labor from the end of one working period to the next one. This constitutes the biological-physiological component of the cost of labor-power.
Yet, the cost of labor-power also includes what it takes to compel the laborer to be willing to return to work and to do this work in a satisfactory fashion. This means the laborer will press to be paid sufficiently to provide for more than minimal basic needs, and the cost of labor-power will include what is necessary to pay for the standard of living that a given society at a given period in time regards to be necessary to function adequately, and satisfactorily, as a member of that particular society-i.e., to be morally just and fair.
For instance, as Marx himself wrote, the moral-historical cost of labor in France included the cost of enabling workers to buy and consume wine, whereas in England it included the cost of enabling workers to buy and consume beer.
Of course, capital always strives to keep this moral-historical component down while labor strives to keep it up. For example, laborers today often expect capitalists to pay them sufficient wages so that they can pay their taxes, pay for some form of retirement and health insurance, afford from time to time to participate in leisure activities and occasional vacations that will cost them some money, pay for their kids to attend college, and own a few luxury items at home, such as a television set, a microwave oven, a VCR or DVD player, and so on and so forth. To take another example, capitalists today often strive to eliminate giving raises to cover increased general cost-of-living expenses, or to provide additional compensation in requiring workers to work overtime, and they also certainly at times will expect workers to work steadily longer and harder on the job, to the point of course of expecting workers to do significant portions of their work away from their direct workplace, without offering additional compensation for workers doing this. Capitalists can increase surplus value, and profit, if they increase the productivity of labor: i.e., they can get laborers to produce more, and more of greater value, with the same effort, and at the same cost-at the same rate of pay. They also can increase surplus value, and profit, if they increase the intensity of labor: i.e., they can get laborers to produce more, and more of greater value, by making them work more, to work longer, harder, and faster, at the same cost-at the same rate of pay.
Fifth, capital constantly seeks to revolutionize production techniques and forms of labor organization to save money, especially on labor costs. Capital also constantly subordinates all investment decisions to the search for maximal or optimal profits. Profits enable the accumulation of capital. Accumulation of capital enables not only the reproduction of capitalist production but also success in competition among capitals. This in turn results in a tendency toward the concentration and centralization of capital, with victors in capitalist competition absorbing or driving out losers. As capitalist enterprises grows larger, the proportion of the mass of accumulated capital these allocate to pay for labor power tends to decrease versus that allocated to pay for non-human means of production. As a result of this development, as well as of the decline in the number of capitals with the growth of larger monopoly and oligopoly forms of capital, the average rate of profit tends to equalize across all sectors of a capitalist economy. In addition, the average rate of profit tends to fall, at least in the long-term, as the proportion of accumulated capital spent on labor-power falls versus that spent on other inputs in production. The reason why this is so is that labor is the only source of surplus value: the only input in production that creates more value for capital than its cost, the only input that can enable the generation of profit. This long-term tendency of the average rate of profit to fall in turn leads to periodic crises of overproduction and overaccumulation (where capital cannot obtain a satisfactory, i.e., a profitable return on what it has produced and invested), and these economic crises often in turn lead to social and political crises as a result of the steps capitalist enterprises follow to deal with their decline and loss of profit.
As capitalists compete with each other, the winners tend to expand while the losers tend to decline. As a result wealth tends to become concentrated in fewer hands, and these few exert impact over wider territories. Once the number of continuing viable companies responsible for the production of a particular product or service has dwindled to a single number or to a small number we have a monopoly or an oligopoly. Once these oversee production so large that it cannot be contained or satisfied within the confines of one country, we see a movement that leads, eventually, toward multinational and transnational capitalism, as well as toward imperialism. Lenin, famously, theorizes imperialism as the result of monopoly capitalism: these monopolies, and oligopolies, need new markets for their products and for profitable investment beyond the home nation, and they maintain such size and scope that they can reach out to acquire raw materials and labor-power from outside of the home nation as well. In order to insure that these monopolies can do so, and as profitably as possible, while monopolies emerging from other nations cannot, the capitalist state intervenes to help pave the way, as well as to insure that this newly expanded arena for profitable business can be maintained and insured. Paving the way can mean directly conquering and occupying a foreign nation, or it can mean exerting indirectly exerting other kind of force upon the foreign nation such that the leaders of the foreign nation give in and agree to turn over the resources of their nation, as well as the labor-power of their citizens, to the capitalists who come into these nations from outside.
I think most of you are well-aware of how far mergers and buyouts and takeovers have led us, in the current capitalist economy, to the point where it actually makes little sense to talk about a 'free market', and especially 'free competition', in the case of many, if not most, capitalist industries; huge corporations maintain enormous market power versus new potential competitors outside of the arenas in which they operate, and they use their accumulated wealth to create an effective barrier to entry for such competitors, while also using this mass as a means of undercutting them should such competition arise, as Wal-Mart is famous for doing across this country-and beyond.
Because Wal-Mart maintains such enormous accumulated wealth, and can operate on such a vast scale, it can afford to charge lower prices than smaller companies in areas where it is attempting to insert itself and at the same time drive under and take over the business of these smaller competitors. Wal-Mart is also infamous for how assiduously it works to squeeze all that it can out of its labor force. Wal-Mart is a good capitalist firm that recognizes the ultimate source of profit is the difference between how much value you can generate from the labor the company employs minus the cost of this labor in the form of wages and other compensation that the company must pay out. This is why, at Wal-Mart, wages are so low, benefits are so limited, security of tenure is virtually non-existent, and opposition to any and all efforts to unionize is so strong.
Typically, as well, profitable firms (such as Wal-Mart) will seek to increase their profit by striving to get fewer laborers to do the same amount of work or to increase the pace and extent of demand placed on workers so that the same number of workers will produce more in the same amount of time. Keeping close tabs on what workers do and don't do, as well as on how much and for how long they actually do work on the job also helps considerably in insuring profitability. At the same time, getting workers to feel enthusiastic about their work so that they will readily give more, including by encouraging them to identify with the company and to think of themselves as all part of a 'team' or a 'family', can also prove quite helpful in maintaining and extending profitability. But, of course, often the pressure to function as part of a 'team environment' also involves the encouragement for workers to compete against each other, and even to spy on and report on each other.
Let us turn next to Marxist conceptions of socialism-and communism.
First, socialism (and communism) have an ancient history as human aspirations and, in 'primitive forms', as actual ways of organizing human communities and societies. Socialist struggles against social inequality and for egalitarian societies long predated Marxism.
Marx and Engels themselves, as you have read, refer to an extensive range of socialist, and communist, movements, initiatives, experiments, and proposals predating their own work. In fact, many times they, and other Marxists, trace both the idea of socialism, and communism, back to the earliest available utopian writings articulating a longing for a golden age of free, humane, and egalitarian social relations. In addition, Marxist anthropology contends that pre-class societies in many cases did organize themselves in communistic form, while, likewise, the same was true of a number of non-class societies that continued simultaneous with the rise and spread of class societies. For instance, Marxists often argue that a significant number of Native American, or American Indian, societies followed this organizational pattern. Not only this, however, but many of the most radical kinds of revolutionary movements of oppressed populations, including throughout Europe, sought to achieve approximations of this kind of society, with the English Levellers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries constituting just one especially prominent example of this trend. Yet other groups actually created utopian communes and other, similar kinds of egalitarian local societies in an attempt to carry out and live by socialistic, and communistic, principles as an escape or retreat from the rest of a larger society. In the United States, for instance, utopian communities proliferated throughout much of the 19th century, including in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest-as they did in most major European capitalist nations at the same time as well. In short, Marxism conceives socialism, and communism, as tendencies, movements, aspirations, and indeed experiments and initiatives that have not only long preceded capitalism but also continued simultaneous with it.
Second, systematic proposals and models for what socialism would/should be like maintain a long history too, and many of these exerted a considerable influence on Marxist conceptions. Still, however, Marxism tended to find these 'utopian' proposals and models wanting as they primarily imagined socialism as something that can be attained simply through rational persuasion, or through small groups opting out of the larger society and forming communes--and, in both cases, virtually entirely independent of any rigorous analysis of what actual tendencies within existing society, as a whole, might pave the way for socialism. For Marxism, socialism must develop out of capitalism itself, out of the tendencies of capitalism toward the real possibility of socialism supplanting capitalism; it must, moreover, be created through mass organization and mobilization of the vast majority of the world's population, by the workers themselves; and it must replace capitalism as a world system not as isolated initiatives in only some communities or societies-or nations. Socialism (and communism), from a Marxist vantage point, are international movements and international creations, and they represent the real movement of self-organization and self-emancipation of the international working class.
From a Marxist vantage point, you can't simply will socialism or communism to happen, you can't simply create it because you want to do so or because you have a theoretical plan or an imaginary vision for how it can be achieved; socialism and communism must be actual, real, powerful tendencies within existing society that you can work to draw out, develop, strengthen, and generalize. Otherwise, according to Marxism, these utopian projections of socialism and communism will remain simply that. According to Marxism, neither socialism nor communism were in any way realistically possible on a wide scale before capitalism, and in fact are not possible until capitalism has exhausted all possibilities for leading the way further in the progressive development of the forces of social production and the general provision as well as satisfaction of human needs. Capitalism, moreover, prepares the way for socialism by greatly extending the objective socialization of the forces of production. And it prepares the way for socialism as well by revolutionizing the means not only of production and distribution, allowing for the distinct prospect of readily satisfying basic human needs for all, but also of transportation and communication, allowing people to cooperate and interact with each other more extensively, and intensively, over greater distances. The key problem, under capitalism, as we have previously discussed, is that existing relations of ownership and control of social production-as well as of distribution, transportation, and communication-do not serve the public interest, are not representative of genuinely democratic, collective self-determination, but instead serve narrowly private capitalist interests, and are subject to increasingly concentrated and centralized monopoly as well as oligopoly forms of capitalist control.
Third, at the same time, however, Marxists fight in solidarity with all self-organized and self-initiated movements of all exploited and oppressed social groups against their exploitation and oppression, even those doomed to failure. Success often only comes after a long litany of 'failures', and in fact always builds upon and draws strength from this record, including the lessons as well as the inspirations it provides (just as was the case in the long centuries of struggle to replace feudalism with capitalism). Marxism maintains ultimately unflagging optimism about the virtue of this quest, even as it always simultaneously accepts that no guarantee exists that it must succeed.
Marxists do not stand back and wait until the time is ripe for socialism and communism to take place, and they certainly don't condemn movements of oppressed and exploited people for seeking reform not revolution, as they see socialism and communism to be long movements that depend upon each generation doing its part, contributing in struggle as it can, building the way to the point where transformation becomes possible. Marxists believe in the possibility of transition from quantitative to qualitative change, such that, for instance, the steady accumulation of efforts to reform capitalism will gradually build up to the point where the pressure to push reform will be irresistible.
As we have discussed before, Marxists believe that revolution involves a uniting of objective and subjective factors, so revolution is not possible without the accumulated historical contribution, in work and struggle, of many, many people. And here too Marxism actually strives to be quite realistic and practical: as many Marxists have answered when people have asked us, "what can I do?" our answer is:
Start with little things, right around you, and with reaching out and connecting up with others in doing these little things, because little things brought together in this way add up to big things. Don't fall prey to the bourgeois ideological position that if you can't individually, all by yourself, make a change happen, and in a relatively short space of time too, that your effort is worthless. If you rethink yourself as part of a collective, as part of an historical process, and you recognize that almost every significant historical change has first passed through many so-called failures before achieving success, and all kinds of changes we have witnessed in the course of human history have been mocked, derided, or dismissed as impossible, yet eventually come to pass, you will be all the more likely to press on.
But, from a Marxist vantage point, it is, at the same time, quite understandable why so many people doubt their ability to do much to contribute to any meaningful kind of social change, and why cynicism is so readily available, as this doubt and this cynicism serves the interest of the capitalist class in maintaining and reproducing capitalism as is, without question or challenge, let alone change. And the same is true of thinking that when one acts individually one only acts as an individual, but not as a representative of a social position, and a social interest, or that one acts in concert with others acting from the same position, and interest, at other times and in other places. Marxists contend that we always participate in movements much larger than ourselves, and the tendency to be overwhelmingly harsh on ourselves for our failure, individually, heroically, to bring about monumental changes or to make immediately visibly powerful impacts through our own single-handed efforts again reflects the bourgeois ideology of individualism, where the individual is always, first and last, an isolated unit who acts on her or his own to determine the course of her or his destiny and her or his impact and influence upon the world.
Those who plan to be future teachers should keep this in mind. I admire and respect how enthusiastically idealistic so many future teachers are (in the commonsensical idea of what "idealistic" means). I wouldn't have it any other way. But I also am concerned about how to maintain this idealism over the long haul. New teachers all-too-often burn themselves out all-too-quickly because they imagine they can, and they have to, do a tremendous amount all by themselves to make a huge difference, and a huge impact, with their students. They act as if they can control how the students will respond to, take up, and engage with the material they teach, forgetting how many other determinants affect students' lives outside of and prior to their point of contact with these students-and they fail to keep in mind how often the difference, and the impact, they make shows up in ways that are neither immediately obvious nor directly visible to the teacher herself or himself. When these teachers feel like they can't all by themselves change the world for the students in their classes, they tend to suffer from despair, and to fall prey to cynicism.
I, for instance, have talked on a number of occasions with future teachers from this school who have broken down in tears over their despair that they were not overcoming the sexism, racism, and heterosexism of the students they were student teaching or teaching as interns, despite their passionately sincere and valiant efforts. What they needed to realize is that this effort is a collective one, an historically ongoing one, one that operates on many fronts, and passes through many stages, in every case requiring work, and struggle, with no guarantee of when victory will be achieved. They also needed to realize that they were making a difference by compelling their students to have to directly, seriously confront these issues, and to account for their own positions and practices. And they also needed to realize that with time, and effort, and practice and experience, and with assistance and collaboration, their ability to make the impact they sought would indeed improve.
In short, perfectionism and salvationism also function as often powerfully debilitating bourgeois ideologies. And we can certainly extend this far beyond this example of teaching: so many people in our society so quickly despair over their capability of making a meaningful difference in, and with, their lives to causes greater than their own individual well-being, and so many of these people likewise retreat to the bittersweet position of cynicism, that proclaims such a difference is impossible, and, in fact, that it is not worth trying because people, society, the world are all essentially not only fixed and unchangeable but rotten and corrupt. But if we don't think we have to do everything always all by ourselves, and to do so as individual heroes, our load lightens and we can continue forward, accepting our inevitable mistakes and failures, yet pressing on and doing what we can. Lenin, for instance, wrote that the true revolutionary is not one who never makes mistakes, or who never admits that he makes mistakes, but rather one who accepts that mistakes are inevitable, that these need to be frankly admitted for what they are when they happen, and yet it is possible, and indeed necessary, to learn from them and by doing so strive not to repeat them. Lenin even advises revolutionaries to seek out and to welcome criticism that will honestly, forthrightly, and constructively help them recognize, understand, and overcome their mistakes.
Now, let us turn to a few final comments on the role of the proletariat in revolutionary socialist struggle and transformation.
First, an extensive history of revolutionary left activity exists prior to Marxism which Marxism draws and builds upon. Still, pre-Marxist revolutionary opposition to capitalism Marxism finds flawed because it advocates change through coups d'etat versus mass insurrections, it proceeds in not only clandestine but also elitist form, it tends toward the promotion of an authoritarian post-revolutionary state, and it only vaguely defines its ultimate economic and social goals. Again, Marx and Engels sought to organize and engage the proletariat itself as the agent of revolution, to unite political with economic and social struggles, and to create legal class-based parties and other mass instruments to conduct these struggles.
Marx and Engels participated quite actively and extensively themselves in organizing and mobilizing the proletariat for action. Marxists believe that under capitalism the proletariat, the working class, represents the potentially most powerfully revolutionary agent because the working class is defined and constituted in direct relation to what is central and fundamental to capitalism-production, including the production of surplus value, the source of capitalist profit and accumulation-and therefore the proletariat is the only agent that has the power to shut down, turn off, take over, seize control, and operate differently what lies at the very heart of the existing capitalist social system. The working class represents the majority of the world's population and it is what ultimately runs the world's economy, that which serves as the foundation for the rest of social life. The organized, mobilized, educated, united revolutionary working class maintains a potential no other social group does to transform the existing capitalist social system. On a smaller scale, many successful approximations of this kind of revolutionary change have in fact repeatedly taken place, from insurrectionary movements in individual regions and nations against ruling political elites to mass strikes in and across particular industries that have brought these industries to a standstill and forced them to give in and grant concessions.
Second, before Marx and Engels joined the effort, workers had already formed many organizations by and for themselves in resistance to capitalist exploitation. These organizations enjoyed many successes, including the formation of the trade union tradition and a trade union culture, as well as an initial level of class consciousness and form of collective class organization and class action.
Marx and Engels, as well as Marxists since, have consistently supported these efforts. Marxism theorizes out of this struggle, from the vantage point of the interest in emancipation of the working class, and Marxism aims to assist workers in carrying out and carrying forward their own struggles. Marxism maintains no independent interest. As mentioned before, however, Marxism supports rank-in-file, democratically controlled and operated unions in opposition to unions that have bureaucratically degenerated and where the union leadership has separated itself from the interest of the vast majority of the union to ally its interest with that of capital.
Third, still, these organizations often were not continuously active, often they only involved small minorities in their activities, often they focused narrowly on only immediate or short-term interests, and often they readily identified with political leadership or aligned themselves with political parties that in fact served the interests of other classes. Marx and Engels sought to universalize unions as basic units of proletarian self-organization, to connect the work of unions with political struggle, to internationalize unions and to fight barriers set up within unions along various sectarian lines (such as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc.), and to establish, as a long-term goal, workers' collective ownership and control of the means, processes, and ends of social production. In short, they sought constantly to broaden and deepen the range of those included/involved in union activity as well as the range of issues with which unions engaged, and they sought to connect union activity with a systematic critique of capitalism and with a history of revolutionary movement for socialism--and communism.
One of the chief aims of Marxists is to fight back against capitalist efforts to divide workers against themselves and thereby to conquer their potential for effective resistance to their common exploitation. When workers start blaming each other for their problems, including by falling prey to racism, sexism, homophobia, ethnocentrism, jingoism, chauvinism, etc., Marxists strive to stop and overcome this damaging degeneration of class consciousness. What's more, Marxists contest the ways in which job classifications and titles as well as salary, wage, commission, and benefit levels work not only to stratify but also to alienate workers from their common interest as workers.
For example, in the UW System today faculty and staff workers do not effectively contest cutbacks in benefits, stagnation of wages and salaries, reductions of staff and supplies, pressure steadily to increase productivity and intensity of work effort without any compensation for doing so, or the simultaneously steadily rising costs our fellow workers, students, face because we are not all united, and are in fact frequently, and unfortunately all-too-easily, pitted against each other. Faculty and professional staff are still barred by state law from collective bargaining, while many of these people regard their economic interests, as professionals, to be of a fundamentally different kind than that of clerical, maintenance, and other kinds of classified staff workers. What's more, faculty complain all the time about the work students do while students complain all the time about the work that faculty do-and students imagine faculty are making windfalls as a result of skyrocketing tuition costs while faculty imagine students don't recognize how hard we work, what else we do while not spending time directly in the classroom, and that you don't appreciate what we have to offer and what we seek to give. Who ultimately benefits from all this division and antagonism? You might say the average taxpayer, but Marxism argues this would be shortsighted, as taxpayers are citizens-and workers-who often themselves need to pay college costs and who are even more often substantially affected and impacted in multiple ways by what kind and quality of education and service colleges provide to the communities in which these people live, and work. No, the true beneficiaries are those who own and control capitalist enterprises, as this division among disparate categories of workers, as well as the exhaustion of the work involved along with the strain from attending to the adversarial quality of this work, leaves these workers divided from each other as well as too tired, and too otherwise preoccupied, effectively to challenge and contest capitalists' dominance over local, state, and regional economies. Not only, thereby, can wages and benefits be kept down, but also these capitalist companies can use their relatively uncontested economic and political power to minimize the extent of the taxes they have to pay as well as the cost of regulations they must endure concerning both the internal impacts they exert over the producers and consumers of their products as well as the external impacts they exert upon the social and natural environment. And they can even seem magnanimous when they make private donations to universities and colleges to help pay for some of the costs these institutions bear. But, if we rethink the situation to consider the total wealth produced in Wisconsin, for instance, under both private and public control, as a potentially available resource to allocate according to how the collective population of workers and citizens of this state freely and democratically decide it should be allocated, and prioritized, to meet collective human needs, we find that a relatively quite small percentage of this total wealth is currently spent on public education, let alone public higher education, while private donations from large corporations are but a drop in the bucket versus the size of the profits they make.